Heart Disease & Women


Shay Beckwith went up to Riggins, Idaho for a rodeo, and a couple of weeks later found herself recovering from open heart surgery in Salt Lake City.

“Heart disease can affect anyone at any time,” she says. “I have learned that.”

She remembers waking up in Riggins that fateful morning in May, 2016, 34 years young. She wasn’t feeling well, but went to the rodeo anyway. As soon as she got back to camp, Shay collapsed, started seizing, and her heart quit. Miraculously, some women she was camping with knew CPR, and began chest compressions. An ambulance from the rodeo was nearby and showed up shortly. She was rushed to another town, and from there was life-flighted to Nampa. On the way, paramedics had to shock her heart back into activity with a defibrillator two times.

After weeks in a Boise hospital, doctors discovered Shay was born with a very rare heart condition called ALCAPA, an acronym for anomalous left coronary artery from pulmonary artery. ALCAPA occurs when a baby’s heart is developing in pregnancy, and the blood vessels in the heart don’t connect correctly. Most infants with the condition don’t make it past the age of one. Shay had no idea of her heart’s dangerous condition, that the left side of heart not getting properly oxygenated blood.

The surgeons placed an internal defibrillator in her as a safety measure in case her heart’s rhythm goes awry in the future. The surgery was successful, and Shay’s now well on the road to recovery.

“Recovery from surgery has been long and tough, and it still kind of hurts,” she says. “I’m taking it one day at a time, doing really good.”

Up to this point in her life, Shay didn’t know what it felt like to feel normal. She recognizes now that growing up, she was often lethargic.  She says she was “always the kid in PE who couldn’t run the mile.” But it’s hard to know what a normal energy level feels like if you’ve never experienced it before.

Shay, who will be speaking at a Go Red for Women luncheon in March, 2017, is an advocate for heart disease awareness, for learning CPR, and for women having greater interest in their wellbeing.

“It’s extremely important. Us as women, we have that women’s intuition,” she says, “and we usually know when something’s not right. I think everyone needs to listen to that, truly listen to that.”

Shay says knowledge is a big part of staying healthy.

“We need to be extremely knowledgeable,” she says. “Knowledge is power. I truly believe that. The more you know the better off you’re going to be, and the more you know about yourself, the better off you’re definitely going to be.”

Cardiovascular diseases kill about one woman every 80 seconds, according to the American Heart Association, but this staggering number that becomes more devastating when coupled with this fact: about 80 percent of cardiovascular diseases may be preventable.

Less than 20 percent of women meet the Federal Physical Activity Guidelines, and about 65 percent of women over the age of 20 are overweight or obese. Other contributing factors are there in high percentages as well, such as total cholesterol, and high blood pressure. Women must take control of their health if the plague of heart disease is to be stemmed.

And as Shay says, women need to be informed, to know how to recognize problems.

What Is Heart Disease?

There are many heart diseases related to the heart’s muscle, valves or rhythm. Commonly, coronary arteries narrow, meaning there is a decreased supply of blood to the heart. When the heart doesn’t get enough blood, its cells are starved of oxygen and nutrients. This is a common cause of heart attack.

In other cases, the heart muscle or surrounding tissue becomes inflamed. Some heart diseases are genetic, sometimes they are caused by infection, and sometimes it isn’t known why heart disease occurs.

How Can I Recognize a Problem?

The Go Red For Women movement urges women to “Know Their Numbers,” which are five numbers specifically: total cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, and body mass index (BMI). When women know these numbers, they have a good understanding of their health, and how at risk they are for cardiovascular issues (which includes diseases of the heart or blood vessels).

Women should also know their family’s history of heart disease, as this is an important risk factor. According to Boise cardiologist Timothy Moore, MD, some women mistakenly ignore the risks for heart disease, as it is more common in men.

The following symptoms are cause for a visit to the cardiologist, Dr. Moore says.

  • Severe shortness of breath
  • Passing out unexpectedly
  • Severe leg swelling
  • Chest pain
  • Chest heaviness
  • Sleep apnea

Treating Heart Disease

Getting patients the right treatment for their condition can mean immediate relief from pain, and the disappearance of symptoms, Dr. Moore says. For example, a patient who has a slower heart rate than is healthy may suffer from balance issues and fatigue, and a pacemaker can drastically improve their quality of life.

Treatments vary on a spectrum of less to more invasive. Some patients may need lifestyle changes, others may be prescribed blood thinners, and others may need surgery to repair blocked arteries.

In the end, however, the patient makes the final decisions.

“I like to give people their options. They want autonomy, and ultimately they are the decision makers,” Dr. Moore says. “I treat them like I would a friend or parent.”

That said, patients should consider the advice of their cardiologist carefully. In women, for example it can be important to get control of blood pressure early on, to prevent arrhythmia and other issues later on, according to Dr. Moore. Furthermore, he says, cholesterol patterns are different in women, compared to men, and this is important to understand in assessing risk of cardiovascular problems.

Problems of the heart are varied and complex to diagnose, and the same is true for treatment. Dr. Moore, who previously practiced in Texas for ten years, says the modern tools now available can mean better outcomes for the patient. Specifically, Cardiac MRI is one tool that not all facilities have.

“Having the right imaging tools can prevent unnecessary surgery,” Dr. Moore says. “It can also do the opposite, where a patient was previously considered unfit for surgery, and a cardiac MRI tells us that surgery is actually a viable option.”

The Importance of Cardiac MRI

Most have heard of MRI, which is used for a variety of medical purposes. An MRI uses a powerful magnetic field, radio waves and a computer to produce images of the structures within the body. This technology is very important for many patients with heart problems.

“There are several different complementary technologies available for imaging the heart, each with various advantages and disadvantages, and cardiac MRI is considered the gold standard for certain aspects of cardiac imaging” says Dr. Christopher Kauffman, a radiologist in Idaho who has subspecialty training in cardiac MRI.

One area where cardiac MRI is particularly advantageous is in differentiating between normal heart tissue and abnormal areas which have been damaged by a heart attack or other disease process. In the case of a heart attack, blood flow to a portion of the heart is blocked and some cells in that area die and are replaced by scar tissue.

“Cardiac MRI beautifully delineates between normal heart tissue and areas that have been damaged and replaced by scar tissue,” Dr. Kauffman says.

Being able to clearly see heart tissue in this way is vital, Dr. Kauffman says.

“Identifying scar tissue in the heart helps predict how the patient is going to do and helps cardiologists and cardiac surgeons make the best possible treatment decisions for their patients,” he says. “Visualizing scar with MRI helps predict whether portions of the heart will benefit from procedures to improve blood flow, such as bypass surgery or stent placement.”

In a bypass surgery, for example, the surgeon uses blood vessels from elsewhere in the body to bypass a blocked artery in order to improve blood flow to the heart. However, if the portion of the heart supplied by the blocked artery has been predominantly replaced by scar tissue, the patient may not gain as much benefit from the surgery as a different patient with little or no scar tissue. The same is true for opening a blocked blood vessel with a stent. In certain patients, cardiac MRI is necessary to help physicians decide whether the potential benefits of improving blood flow to the heart outweigh the potential procedural risks.

Another scenario where cardiac MRI is important is when heart failure is caused by something other than poor blood flow. A viral infection affecting the heart, for example, can cause serious heart failure and can mimic a heart attack due to blocked arteries. Differentiating between a viral infection and a heart attack due to block arteries is straightforward with cardiac MRI but can be very difficult with other tests.

“Within the realm of cardiovascular disease there are a subset of patients for whom the information that cardiac MRI provides is essential,” Dr. Kauffman explains.

Cardiac MRI isn’t as common performed as other cardiac imaging options, partially because of its expense, and partially because it requires special training and software. But when cardiac MRI provides information that prevents an unnecessary surgery, or guides a surgeon to complete a procedure for a better outcome, cardiac MRI is invaluable.

Attend the Go Red For Women Luncheon

Go Red For Women advocates for more research and swifter action for women’s heart health. The movement harnesses the energy, passion and power women have to band together and collectively wipe out heart disease and stroke. The Go Red for Women luncheon helps the American Heart Association fund lifesaving heart disease and stroke research. The investment has yielded or contributed to many important innovations such as CPR, life-extending drugs, pacemakers, bypass surgery, the heart-lung machine and surgical technique to repair heart defects. It’s enabled many women to call themselves survivors.

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